Introduction“What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.”
- George Leigh Mallory
This article began life as an account of my ascent of the north face of Lliwedd in Snowdonia. I desired to enrich my experience of the route through an exploration of the names which lay credited to the first ascents. What I discovered was a fellowship of pioneering climbers linked in endeavours which were integral to Britain’s golden age of mountaineering. Names on roll included such as Longland, Jones, Eckenstein, Young, Thomson, and Mallory. The north face of Lliwedd, it seems, provided a superb training ground for these individuals for future achievements in the Alps and the greater ranges of the Himalayas, which eventually lead to the north face of Everest. In today’s times however, Lliwedd has fallen out favour- out done by the east face of Tryfan, or the easily accessible Idwal slabs or Cromlech boulders. In this article I wish to pay tribute to the value and importance of Lliwedd in the climbing annals, and to its intrepid routes of the early 20th century.
The North Face of Lliwedd and Llyn Llydaw below.
My own story begins in Guilford, a county town four miles over the hill from Godalming- notable as the residence and teaching post of twenty four year old George Leigh Mallory. Under far less illustrious circumstances you’ll find me stood in an outdoor shop: bored stiff, crammed between a rail of waterproof jackets and polar tech fleeces. There I am encircled by a descending wall of cold air blasted by the incessant air conditioning unit above. The noise is tolerable, even if it didn’t come close to drowning out the everyday-same song on the sound system. That same band syndrome that even after two months was close to driving me cracked. I’d had no customers in all morning (but that was alright too really) and while the sun shone outside I skimmed my way through the inspiring Rock Climbing in Snowdonia.
Half way through the guide a full page black and white photo caught my eye. It stopped me dead. It showed an imposing face superimposed with five white long lines weaving upwards. I gripped the book slightly tighter and whistled a low note of awe. The lower third of the photo showed a curving scree field from which broken ground rose upwards leading onto the cliff. This itself looked broken but was marked by several buttresses, deep shadows dividing them. The ridge line touched the sky with barely a thumbs width on the page to spare. The descriptions revealed routes of up to nine hundred feet, I wasn’t even aware that Wales had such length of climbing.
The summit ridge of Crib Goch
I knew of Y Lliwedd, a peak just under three thousand feet that formed the final leg of the Snowdon Round, and utterly marvellous ridge walk that is a rite of passage for many aspiring hill walkers. Yet despite its prominence and position it had always been eclipsed in my mind by the height of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and the sheer enjoyment of scrambling along Crib Goch’s summit ridge. Through this perception, I unfairly dismissed Y Lliwedd as the necessary slog to complete the round.
Enthralled now on the shop floor, and totally engrossed, I began looking at Y Lliwedd with a climber’s eye and with a fresh perspective. Suddenly it presented a great mountaineering challenge: long multi-pitch routes that I aspired to. I read the route descriptions avidly, and then the names credited to the first ascent. I was excited to note the name Mallory on an eponymous slab route of 1908. At the time the other names meant little to me, and I fell in love with the idea of climbing his route a hundred years later. Still even at this stage I gleamed my first inkling of the importance of this peak to British mountaineering.
Without too much difficulty I was able to beg off a weekend in October 2007 and headed up to North Wales with two friends Anna and Robert, where we joined the Aston University Mountaineering Club in the Ogwen Valley. I held high hopes for doing one of the routes, despite poor weather. I was feeling confident after a recent successful trip to the Langdales in Cumbria, where I had led a Severe Plus up Pavey Ark. I felt invigorated once more by the being within the mountains and was up at the crack of dawn on the Saturday for a quick run up and down Tryfan (I was on top form from the summer) before the others were out of their tents.
Yet I had under estimated a vital factor in the days planning that I am sure Mallory and companions would never have had to content with at the Pen y Pass: Parking. By the time Rob, Anna and I had reached the car park it was chock-a-bloc. Even the lay bys down the Llanberris pass were full of cars whose owners were already on their way up Britain’s highest peak. Deflated, we switched plans to climb Main Wall, billeted as the finest Hard Severe in Britain. This three pitch climb is located on Cryn Las, a crag on the north-eastern side of Carnedd Ugain. It took us an hour to hike into the base of the cliff, were as the first leader I was promptly defeated by a heavy dampness caught deep within the sun deprived rock. Robert (our most confident leader) had similar problems, and all his cam placements ripped right out. Defeated, we played around on easy slabs further down before retreating to the climbing haven of Pete’s Eats. A well deserved plug for the heartiest meals a climber could want.
Robert had to return to Derby the next day, and Anna and I contented ourselves with First Pinnacle Rib, an enjoyable six hundred foot V Diff on Tryfan’s east face. We continued to climb regularly after this trip but on a second trip to the Somerset Fairy Cave Quarry disaster struck. Whilst I was leading on an overly vegetated slab Robert was climbing to my right, challenging himself on a sparse and smooth E4 slab. As I negotiated around an outgrowing tree (providing an interesting sling placement) I heard a whoosh and thud, a long pause, and then:
‘I think I’ve broken my leg’.
‘Are you sure?’ responded Anna.
‘Uh yes’ replied Robert.
In fact it was a broken foot, twisted in such a novel way that it entered medical journals. Anna and I tried to continue with our climbing, first at the sea cliffs of Swanage before retreating north to the windy grit stone crags of the Peak District. It was clear however that our hearts weren’t in it, and the years run of good climbing was finished. I put my dreams for Lliwedd aside.
Mallory's Slab/ Great Chimney
They were invigorated in April 2008 on the return of my long standing Bavarian-born climbing partner Tom Stahl. Fresh from his world travels he was eager to devote his weekends to climbing as much as possible. I didn’t need to convince Tom to make the long drive from Luton to Llanberris and so I found myself finally heading back to Lliwedd.
Views of Snowdon from the Great Terrace.
The most prolific mountaineer on Lliwedd was James M. Archer Thomson. Whilst in his forties, with the responsibility of Headmaster at Llandudno County School, Thomson led the first climbs up the face. In the Paul Williams guide alone his name appears on four of the five routes marked on the face. This earned him a number of mentions in the newly established Climber’s Club Journals. In 1909 he produced the first guide book for the face along with A.W. Andrews, the editor of the Climber’s Club Journal.
The route that first caught my attention was Mallory’s Slab/Great Chimney, a nine hundred foot V Diff split over seven pitches. The latter part of the climb had in fact been climbed in 1907 by Thomson and partner Humphrey Owen Jones, a year before Mallory linked the route from the base to the summit. Jones was fifteen years Thomson’s junior and was twenty nine during their ascent of the Great Chimney. Jones was another Cambridge fellow, a brilliant chemist responsible for the discovery of carbon monosulphide and noted for his work on crystals. Tragedy however was to cut short both his blossoming scientific career and his mountaineering dreams, when in 1912 he and his new wife fell to their deaths on their honeymoon in the alps. In the same year Thomson committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid.
I wonder how both these men viewed the twenty two year old Mallory when he had led that slab in 1908. This was a young keen progressive intellectual as much interested in mountaineering as with evening debate at the Gorphwysfa Hotel, meeting place of the Pen y Pass club. His mentor and friend Geoffrey Winthrop Young knew that Mallory had an air of nonchalance around his climbing, but it was also his dedication to climbing in Wales that got him invited to the Alps the following year. We know from a 1909 letter to his mother that Mallory’s dreams lay in the Alps, “How glorious it will be, after dreaming of them for four years” he wrote, and so his climbing in Wales and on Lliwedd especially would have been preparation for his trips abroad.
Me leading the first pitch of Avalanche (HVD).
It was with my own thoughts of future dreams in mind that we now approached the base of Lliwedd. This time I wasn’t prepared to underestimate the Pen y Pass car park, which we arrived at before six. Still I was surprised to find it already filling up. Despite this we were alone on our walk in along the Miners Track, able to peacefully enjoy morning views of the tranquil waters of Llyn Teyrn and Llyn Llydaw. Tom and I were in need of long multi-pitch practise, having not led any significant routes since the year before in Mallorca and the Pyrenees. So we decided to leave the planned route for another day and switched our objective to Avalanche/Red Wall/Longland’s continuation, a thirty feet shorter route but which was broken into twelve pitches. This would give us plenty of switch over practise, but also provided HV Diff climbing and a three star route.
Avalanche/Red Wall was another Thomson route first climbed in 1907, along with E.S. Reynolds (a man defying all internet search results). Paul Williams regards this climb as “one of the great expeditions of the areas and one of the best routes up the buttress”. I certainly felt a great deal of anticipation for the day ahead as I scrambled through the scree field and onto the broken ground below the Heather Terrace, and the start of the route.
Another name linked with Lliwedd was that of Oscar Eckenstein, an early advocator of bouldering, and one of the only mountaineers to freely climb with “The Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley. As a climber, Eckenstein was more comfortable as a second and often climbed with Thomson on his aspiring routes up Lliwedd. Eckenstein was an innovator, more than sixty years ahead of his time, who redesigned the crampon in 1908 to a model resembling current designs and who produced the first short ice axe. Eckenstein however had had a fiery relationship with the Alpine Club, and so his ideas were not readily adopted at the time.
My research of Lliwedd prior to the climb warned me that route finding on Lliwedd was an inexact science, but vital to a successful climb. But at the base of the climb Tom and I were already debating where the route began and if we were even on the Heather Terrace. In the end we decided that we were at the right spot and I took the first lead up broken ledges into a rising groove. Placements were already sparse, settling at one point for a sling around a semi-loose flake, and I found myself using one gaston move after the next to ascend a series of downwards sloping ribs.
Tom leading the second pitch of Avalanche.
It had been a good pitch to allow me to get back into the swing of leading outdoors, and it was now Tom’s turn. Taking the gear he began a rightwards traverse before rounding a corner and disappearing out of sight. When I followed afterwards I noticed that the issue of sparse protection wasn’t exaggerated. This added to seriousness of the route. I was also pleased to note that we were totally immersed on this face. There was only one other climbing group present on the face, and they were climbing far to our left and we heard them only briefly. We were alone above Snowdonia’s busiest valley.
Me leading the third pitch.
My hanging belay.
The third pitch brought me leading onto one of the steepest sections of the route, into a steep crack thankfully reasonably well protected. Unwisely, I climbed past the first good belay point and was forced to set up a hanging belay due to extreme rope drag. This provided an excellent half hour of exposure with my feet resting on a block of quartz, the scree field three hundred feet below. I could look across now to the summit of Yr Wyddfa, resembling a hedgehog with the amount of people standing like spikes at its cairn.
The fourth and fifth pitches, combined by Tom brought him to a wide wall, which I noted with a little envy also provided him with a far more comfortable belay padded by grass. We ate a little bit of chocolate and cheese topped roles while looking down at the waters of Llyn Llydaw, becoming a more vivid blue as the sun began to burn through the mist. We soon began to wish we had taken more than one and a half litres of water. When finished we walked rather than scrambled right onto the Great Terrace. Here we realised we had gone too far upwards, and had missed the next great feature of the Terminal Arête.
Not to be disappointed however Tom and I decided to tackle the imposing wall above us, broken in one section by an attractive looking crack. My Eckenstein to Tom’s Thomson, this provided me a position to take some excellent photographs while he struggled up the crack. Cam placements were useless; fortunately Tom’s classic selection of Hexes saw him upwards into a decent belay. Climbing afterwards I agreed with his assessment of the grading the moves at around 4b, far harder than we had anticipating that day. What was left next was for me to climb difficultly up through grass and soil packed grooves, offering no gear protection, to the base of Longland’s Continuation.
Tom on the crux moves (4b)
Sir John Lawrence Longland, “Jack”, represented the third generation of climbers to put their name to routes on Lliwedd. Longland was still attached to his mother’s apron strings when Thomson was establishing Lliwedd as a top British mountaineering venue. The section of the route that Tom and I now found ourselves had been first led by Longland in 1929, at the age of twenty four. Longland represented a different mould of mountaineer, one who had been shaped by the Great War and who had witnessed the decimation in ranks of his fellow climbers. This generation was also pioneering far harder routes in Wales. For Longland this included the inadvertent and terribly daring first ascent of Javelin Blade (E1 5b), which remains one of the hardest route on the Idwal slabs today.
Longland would have been an impressionable nineteen years old when Mallory was lost on Everest, and like Mallory Longland’s adventures on Lliwedd eventually led him to the north face of the world’s highest mountain. Longland formed part of the contingent for the 1933 Everest Expedition, and his main accomplishment was the establishment of Camp VI at twenty seven four hundred feet before leading a party of porters down to Camp IV in arduous conditions.
Longland would be best remembered however by the greater public for advocating outdoor education in Britain, of which he used his position as a Director of Derbyshire County Council.
Tom playing to the crowd on the last pitch.
Longland’s Continuation provided an interesting pitch which was run out and sparsely protected. Beyond this though the route degenerated into a broken finish of small rock sections separated by long runs of heather, but at this stage I was pretty tired and looking forward to a good meal. At the penultimate belay we realised we were in full view of the ridge, and there were many pairs of eyes watching us. This was an unfamiliar situation and half way up the final lead a woman asked me if I had climbed all the way from the bottom. At the summit someone else asked me if we had pre-placed the ropes, which goes to show that the fundamentals of climbing aren’t yet understood by the general public.
I was incredibly pleased to have climbed Lliwedd. It had taken us the best part of the day, and we wouldn’t be winning any records for speed. But that didn’t matter, as it had allowed us to reaffirm our love for long mountain routes. By the end of the twelve pitches we had been switching over far more efficiently anyway, on a route up Tryfan the following day we were far faster.
While I enjoyed the isolation that the route provided I was slightly disappointed that only one other team was on the face. Surely such an enjoyable and important cliff should be more popular? To climb on Lliwedd is to pay homage to some of Britain’s finest mountaineering experiences, and a chance to climb amongst a roll call of names that have helped defined the values we uphold today in modern mountaineering. I still have four more routes to enjoy up Lliwedd, and hopefully my adventures on this Welsh north face will lead me onwards into even greater challenges.
Me belaying at the summit of Lliwedd.